The Secret Service has long taken an extreme position on what it views as threat to the president in questioning journalists, commentators, and even cartoonists. Now, Secret Service agents have questioned seventh grader Vito LaPinta about a simple exchange he left on Facebook.
A Tacoma student’s mother said that she received a call from his school that both the Secret Service and Tacoma Police had shown up looking for Vito.
The reason was a statement made by Vito on Facebook that simply said that, after Bin Laden’s killing, President Obama should look out for suicide bombers — not an unreasonable observation. One can easily imagine the same statement on any cable program.
That simple comment led to Vito being called out of his fourth grade class and confronted by an agent who said that he was suspected of threatening the President.
They did not wait for his mother in interrogating the seventh grader. Later police say that the mother did not take the call from the security officer seriously — a claim that she vehemently denies and said she rushed to Truman Middle School immediately.
The Supreme Court is considering a case where police questioning a child without informing this parents and used statements from the interview against him. In J.D.B. v. North Carolina, a middle school student was pulled out of his social studies class subjected to intense questioning without his parents in a meeting with school officers and administrators. We are awaiting a decision — though the Supreme Court has been historically less than vigilant in protecting rights of students.
In this case, a secret service agent began with a perfectly understandable observation made by many in the wake of the killing. He then found out the author was a seventh grade student. He then proceeded to go to the school and tell the child (in the absence of a parent) that he was believed to have threatened the president. At what point does this become a matter of discipline?
For years, civil libertarians have complained about the free speech implications of the Secret Service’s investigation of statements made about presidents — including statements that, while hostile, are clearly commentary. The criminalization of “threats” is so broadly interpreted by the Secret Service that most any hostile statement can trigger an investigation. The concern is that this amounts to an effort to chill speech. My concern in this case is far more focused. When Secret Service pursue seventh graders and interrogate them without their parents, we have serious problems of an agency with either too much time on their hands or too little supervision — or both.
I am also (again) concerned with how some school officials continue to disregard protections for the children in their care. There was no imminent need to interrogate this child before the arrival on his mother. Soon after she arrived, the agent cut off the interview and said that he was satisfied that the president was safe.